Putting Appreciation to Work

It was common for our parents and grandparents to marry once, put down roots, and follow one or two jobs until retirement, but Americans in the new millennium seem to be taking a revolving-door approach to commitments: just in case it doesn’t work out, the door is left open.

The turnover rates are confirmed by statistics as half of marriage commitments end in divorce, one third of volunteers do not return after their first year of service, and Americans hop from job to job with an average of 11 different occupations by the time they are 44 years old. While some of these commitments (such as marriage) reflect moral bearings and others freedom of choice, they all point to a common thread of dissatisfaction.

The research is evident, but what are the underlying causes of this widespread discontentment driving people away from their commitments? Why are pastors, professionals, and ministry volunteers experiencing burn-out? And what can we do differently to prevent this?

In his bestselling book, The 5 Love Languages, Dr. Gary Chapman proposed that the reason many marriages suffer is because husbands and wives do not understand each other’s language of personal communication. Once they identified and understood their “love language,” many couples have found renewed communication and intimacy in their marriage. Dr. Chapman’s observations were apparently accurate, as over 6 million copies (in English) were sold.

But in the workplace, languages of communication take a different form. In my experience of over 20 years in business consulting, one of the top reasons I have observed contributing to the “revolving door syndrome” is the lack of effectively communicated appreciation. In fact, according to the US Department of Labor, 64% of Americans who leave their jobs state lack of appreciation as the reason for stepping down. Just as love is the foundation of a strong marriage, effectively communicated appreciation is the bedrock of a great organization in work and ministry contexts.

While the languages of personal communication share similarities in the home and the workplace, their application and expression is dramatically different in personal and professional relationships. And to ensure that the message is not lost in translation, it is essential to understand the distinctions between different languages in their different contexts.

Hierarchy of Positions

A relationship between a supervisor and assistant, employer and employee, or two team members at different responsibility levels clearly has different relational dynamics than a relationship between spouses, family members, or friends. This hierarchy of positions introduces a power dynamic in work-based relationships, changing the whole context in which communication occurs.

Expectations and Boundaries

Work-based relationships are typically more formal than personal relationships, and the social boundaries of appropriate topics of discussion, styles of communication, social settings and physical proximity are more narrowly defined than in relationships with family and friends.

Appropriate Physical Touch

For the reasons stated above, physical touch is less important and plays a dramatically different role in the workplace than in personal relationships. Physical touch is the lowest language of appreciation for most people in the workplace, since there are clear boundaries in the work environment and for some employees even appropriate touch is not a desired mode of communication. But spontaneous, celebratory displays (high five’s, fist bumps, a pat on the back) are quite common between coworkers and are an important part of positive work-based relationships.

Quality Time

While quality time in personal relationships is primarily expressed through focused attention, quality time that expresses appreciation in the workplace can take on different forms. Within a professional context, this may include hanging out together as colleagues, working on tasks together collegially, or shared experiences that deepen team relationships.

Acts of Service

When demonstrating appreciation through acts of service in the workplace, there are important conditions to meet for the act to be valued by the recipient. The employee should first be asked if he or she wants assistance, and then the service should be completed in the way the recipient wants it done. The coworker lending a hand should define how much time he or she has to offer, and should avoid repeatedly rescuing a colleague who is underperforming so that the act of service is viewed positively by all.

Verbal Praise

As a love language, words of affirmation are usually a private exchange between two individuals, but in professional relationships, words of affirmation may also be communicated in group contexts. Public, verbalized appreciation of employees in a team meeting, in front of customers, or at an awards ceremony, is often an effective way of valuing employees for their work. Written communication through email and texting is also used significantly in work-based relationships.

Tangible Gifts

In personal relationships, gifts tend to be tangible objects, often given in celebration of a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary. For those who value tangible gifts as their primary love language, the uniqueness, sentimental character, and price or value of the gift are often significant factors.

Tangible gifts in the workplace are less about the gift itself and more about the thought behind it—that the giver knows what is valued by the recipient or what hobbies or special interests they have. These gifts are also more commonly related to experiences—movie tickets, gift certificates for restaurants, or shopping gift cards. Additionally, one of the most common expressions of gift-giving in the workplace is through food—bringing bagels or donuts to share at the office, buying pizza for lunch, bringing in a homemade dessert, or picking up a coworker’s favorite coffee drink.

An Individualized Approach

Each person has their own preferred language of appreciation within the workplace. And within each language, there are specific actions that are valued more or less by that individual. The good news is that all of these actions of appreciation are either completely free or involve only a nominal cost. They key is to be able to use the right action with the right person, at the right time, and with a genuine spirit of appreciation.

When actions of appreciation hit the target, team members are effectively encouraged and the team is solidified and strengthened as a whole. Appreciation that is effectively communicated transforms the workplace, creating an environment in which employees and ministry workers can thrive and will look forward to longevity with a company, instead of looking for the door.

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